Alcatraz is arguably the most famous prison in the world. The most dangerous prisoners were kept here because it would be so difficult to escape. The prison is on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Although I had visited many years ago, I decided to go again for two reasons. First, Russell hadn’t been and secondly, you can do an Alcatraz night tour. While you can’t stay overnight at Alcatraz, a night tour would give me a different perspective, and I was surprised how much I learned. In this post, I wanted to tell you what it is like to tour Alcatraz at night and provide some tips for visiting Alcatraz Island.
What is Alcatraz Island?
Alcatraz Island is a small island located in the San Francisco Bay. Originally, back in the 19th century, it was developed as a military fortification with a lighthouse, but it is most famous for the federal prison that was open from 1934-1963. During its time as a federal prison, it held some of the most dangerous criminals in the country including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda, and more. While 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, none of them were successful.
A few years after the prison was closed, a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes, occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians.
Alcatraz Night Tour vs Day Tour
You have the option to visit Alcatraz during the day or at night. It’s not just about the time and whether it will be dark outside during your tour, there are more differences between the night and day tours. Both tours include the ferry ride to and from the island and the Alcatraz audio guide. The Alcatraz night tour also includes narration on the boat ride, special tour activities/exhibits, and docent guided tour/talks. Since you get more during the nighttime tour, it does cost more than the day tour. The night tour also is not offered on Sunday or Monday.
How to Get to Alcatraz
The only way to go to Alcatraz Island is as part of the official tours. All the tours include a boat ride to the island. We were told to arrive at the dock early and when we got there it was already a long line for the Alcatraz Ferry. Of course, if you have a ticket you will be able to get on the boat but people want to line up early to get the best seats. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Pretty soon after the boat left the dock, we headed to the outside portion of the deck for the best views.
The boat took off just as the sun was starting to set. It was a clear day so we had a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge, which we also rode bikes across the next day. The tour guide pointed out landmarks and gave us some information about the tour, including the times the boats would leave. The boat then circled Alcatraz island so that we could see it from all sides before docking.
Walking up to Alcatraz Prison
We had been warned that the walk from the dock to the prison was steep. They did have a tram to take those with mobility issues up. I thought it was steep but not terrible. The sun was quickly setting and it already felt a bit eerie being on Alcatraz at night.
We stopped at a couple of points along the way for brief talks from the park ranger and it wasn’t too long before we were standing right outside the prison. The park ranger then went over the Alcatraz night tour schedule. While there were several sessions that sounded interesting, the schedule was not written anywhere so it was hard to remember. We decided we would play it by ear.
We entered the prison and picked up our audio guides. I should say was one of the best audio tours I have experienced. They did a fabulous job of sharing the personal stories of the prisoners and guards. I liked how they used different voices to tell the stories. Plus, they pointed out historical spots inside Alcatraz like the cells of famous inmates. The Cellhouse audio tour is available in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Special Talks Included in the Alcatraz Night Tour
The audio guide for our Alcatraz evening tour finished in the cafeteria. A park ranger announced there would be a talk happening soon, so we decided we should stay and see what it was about. It turned out to be about the Native American occupation of Alcatraz. I had no idea that Native Americans had occupied the island as a form of protest against the government taking their land.
The occupation lasted 14 months, from November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971. To get the Native Americans to leave, the government cut off power to the island, but some were still determined to stay. Later, a fire from an unknown cause broke out and more left. Finally, the government forcefully removed the last 15 people.
The next Alcatraz guided tour we attended was about the infamous escape from Alcatraz on June 11, 1962, which inspired the movie Escape from Alcatraz. We met the park ranger outside and she explained the elaborate plan. Then she pointed to the roof where the prisoners escaped. They were never found, so they are presumed dead.
Short Film About Alcatraz History
Then we headed back down the hill and caught a short film in a building close to the dock. The film was interesting because it talked about the children that grew up on Alcatraz. I had never thought that there would be children on Alcatraz, but guards did live on the island with their families. It was fascinating to hear from the now adults who had spent their childhood on the island. They didn’t think it was unusual and they thought it was a great place to grow up.
After about three hours on Alcatraz Island, it was time to get on the boat and head back to San Francisco. By now, it was completely dark and a little chilly, so we just sat inside the ferry and enjoyed the ride. Spending the night at Alcatraz is definitely something we won’t soon forget. Check out our Alcatraz video tour to see more.
Other Alcatraz Tour Options
In addition to the Night and Day tours at Alcatraz, there are a few other options that you might find interesting.
Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour
With the Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour, you get to do a two-hour guided small group tour of Alcatraz that covers areas not included on the cell house audio tour or other regular ranger tours. You get to see a variety of off the beaten path areas of Alcatraz Island. The Behind the Scenes Tour of Alcatraz varies daily depending on weather, construction, and even the birds. Destinations covered may include the New Industries Building, the Officers’ Row Gardens, the D Block Upper Levels, the Hospital, A Block, Citadel, and the Chapel.
There is a lot of walking up steep hills and even some steep stairs to climb during this tour. In some cases, those with mobility issues would only be able to see areas through photos and video. Additionally, due to the duration, children must be at least 12 to go on the Behind the Scenes Tour. After completing the small group tour, the Behind the Scenes Tour group would join the Night Tour for the audio tour and Ranger talks.
Alcatraz & Angel Island Combo Tour
With the Alcatraz and Angel Island Combo Tour, you get to visit both Alcatraz and nearby Angel Island. Angel Island is a state park with an interesting history. It was once an immigration processing center. The tour will take you on a ferry from Alcatraz to Angel Island where you will get a one-hour narrated tram tour of the island. Then you will return by boat to Alcatraz. On Alcatraz, this tour includes the audio guide of the Cellhouse and daily optional programs/exhibits. (Read more about things to do in Angel Island). The Alcatraz and Angel Island Combo tour lasts 5 1/2 hours and is only available March to October.
Early Bird Tour
The Early Bird Tour of Alcatraz is the same as the day tour. It just means that you are on the first boat going to the island so it will be less crowded.
How to Get Alcatraz Night Tour Tickets
Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco. I must stress that it is important to buy your Alcatraz tickets early especially if you want to do the night tour or if you only have one day in San Francisco. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance. I would recommend buying them at least a month ahead of time. There are only two Alcatraz boats for the night tours which are only offered Tuesday through Saturday. The Alcatraz night tour does have special programs that are not available during the day too. I also wanted to do the night tour because I thought the atmosphere would be better. Tickets for the Alcatraz night tour cost $45.50 per adult while the day tour is $38.35. You can book your tickets here.
What if Alcatraz Tickets are Sold Out?
If you procrastinated buying Alcatraz tickets or didn’t know you needed to get them in advance, the official website may be showing sold out. You may be able to find tickets on StubHub. It’s a ticket resale website so you may end up paying a little bit more, but you can feel confident because StubHub has a 100% guarantee for every order. Click here to see if there are any Alcatraz night tour tickets on StubHub.
Another option is to look at other tours that include the official Alcatraz day tours. You will be paying a premium but it may be the only way to get tickets to see Alcatraz. Unfortunately, I have not found any that include the Alcatraz night tour. Here are the options that I have found:
- San Francisco City Tour + Alcatraz – Check price and availability here.
- San Francisco Helicopter Flight + Alcatraz – Check price and availability here.
- Walking Craft Beer Tour + Alcatraz – Check price and availability here.
- Big Bus Tour + Alcatraz – Check price and availability here.
- Day Trip to Sonoma + Alcatraz – Check price and availability here.
Have you been to Alcatraz Island? Did you do the Alcatraz day or night tour? I think the best Alcatraz tour is the one at night. What do you think?
Expert Tips for Your Alcatraz Night Tour
- Book your Alcatraz tickets in advance before the tours sell out.
- Try to take advantage on some of the talks that are offered in addition to the audio tour.
- Even in the summer, it will be chilly at night, so be sure to bring a jacket.
- If you are looking for other things to do in San Francisco, you may want to try biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, exploring Golden Gate Park, or visiting the Walt Disney Family Museum.